A common question for so many victims of narcissistic abuse is whether the perpetrator should ever be forgiven. Should we ever forgive a narcissist? Either for one specific, very hurtful thing they have done (especially cheating), or more generally for the entire person they are, and what they did to you over the course of a toxic relationship.
In terms of straightforward forgiveness of extending a conciliatory hand of friendship and offering to let the past be the past, the answer is clear:
Narcissists are not deserving of forgiveness, since they lack remorse, contrition and sincerity and will likely repeat the same hurtful behaviors again. Moreover, they never appreciate and value offers of forgiveness extended to them and will likely throw this back in the other person’s face with arrogance and contempt.
However, there are other ways of defining “forgiveness” – does the process of forgiving even need to involve the narcissist? We’ll break down the nuance of this issue more, along with closely related ideas of acceptance and detachment, to examine ways of moving on from the abuse of the narcissist but also not being overly naive in expecting things of the narcissist that will never be possible.
Ultimately, it’s arguably more important to forgive oneself than to forgive the narcissist after being in a toxic relationship with them. Let’s drill down a bit more into the issue to explain why.
Why Narcissists Do Not Deserve Forgiveness
Let’s cover some simple bottom line reasons why narcissists do NOT deserve forgiveness in the generally accepted sense of the word – the more traditional sense of someone actively reaching out to the person who wronged them, offering their forgiveness for what the person did (we understand there are more subtle connotations to the word “forgiveness” – which we’ll cover in a section below).
It can however also be a purely mental process if the person is no longer around, where the mental attitude of the aggrieved person towards the other person shifts from negative ones to more positive ones. They are saying “I forgive you for what you did to me; I will no longer resent it or hold it against you. It’s water under the bridge”.
However, much like a psychopath, we can’t assume the narcissist is a normal person, like any other, and therefore that the same rules would apply as anyone else when extending this olive branch, either mentally or in reality.
Here are some things to bear in mind when thinking about forgiving a narcissist:
- Narcissists are never truly sorry and whatever hurtful things they did (including cheating), and they’re likely to do it again. We’ll pick through how they can insincerely pretend to be sorry later in the post, but this is never genuine.
- Ask yourself if you are ready to interpersonally “forgive” the narcissist to the extent you’d be happy with them doing the same thing(s) all over again (cheating, abuse, boundary violations etc). Because they will.
- If we extend forgiveness to someone for wrongdoing, despite us being the one that was wronged, it’s reasonable to expect that the other person would cherish this gesture, this olive branch we extend. That it would lift a burden of guilt they’d been carrying about wrongdoings. Narcissists, just like psychopaths, would NEVER cherish this gesture, and would likely throw it back in your face with scorn and contempt. They don’t do humble and contrite; in their mind, they’re always the victim.
- Perhaps there’s a bit more a spectrum with some narcissists regarding the ability to feel guilt in a fleeting way (more so than for psychopaths), but it’s quite clear these people do not lie awake at night thinking about what they’ve done and how they’ve treated others. They’re happy to treat people as objects and sources of supply, not as human beings. Does this mindset deserve forgiveness?
Does a person who fits this profile sound like someone who deserves forgiveness? The answer should be clear.
However, we’ll cover more nuanced interpretations of “forgiveness” in a later section. It is important to let go, but not in a way that’s conciliatory towards people who have no remorse or contrition for their toxic behavior, and would happily do the same things again in a heartbeat.
“Do not give second chances to people who express no remorse for their mistreatment of you. Do not give second chances to people who express remorse but continue with their same harmful behavior. Do not accept another person forgiving you for crimes you did not commit”
Jackson Mackenzie – Whole Again – see here.
Forgiveness vs Acceptance vs Detachment
In order for each individual person to decide what outcome they want for themselves, and what word they think best describes what they’re wanting to move on from a narcissistic relationship, I think it’s important to break down a bit more the terms of forgiveness, acceptance and detachment, and differentiate them,
Of course there are different views on the semantics of these words, but here’s my take on them:
1. Interpersonal Forgiveness – For me, often carries the more traditional connotation of choosing to interpersonally extend an “olive branch” of “letting go” of what someone did to you, or making up, of “forgiving and forgetting” and moving on in a way that is conciliatory with the other person. Letting go of the negative energy between you because you’re just done with it; you’ve more important things to deal with in your life. I personally could and would potentially use this for misunderstandings and fall-outs with normal people, but would NEVER use this concept in relation to a narcissist or other pathological, personality disordered abuser, because it carries with it a connotation of conciliation which I do NOT believe toxic, unrepentant people deserve. Interpersonal forgiveness must surely be earned, right? They must be truly, sincerely, humbly sorry and regret what they did. Don’t hold your breath for that to happen with a narcissist! They might fake contrition (see the section below on hoovering), but they’re never truly sorry.
2. Self Forgiveness – However, forgiveness is argued by some to be more an act of the self, of forgiving oneself for the mistakes made (for letting the narc in, overlooking red flags, tolerating their abuse, giving them umpteen chances, not getting out sooner etc). This connotation I’m much more comfortable with – forgiving oneself for a toxic relationship in a way that has nothing to do with the narcissist, and is not impacted by what they do or don’t do, feel or don’t feel. You never need to see or deal with the narcissist ever again to forgive yourself, nor do you need them to repent or change (because they never will anyway). See our article where we cover the topic of self forgiveness in more detail, plus some tips and ideas on how to get there.
3. Acceptance – Again this a term that I prefer more because it’s more independent of the abuser – accepting or coming to terms with what happened, and letting it go. Accepting that they abused, gas-lit, humiliated, pathologized, smeared and isolated you, plus whatever other horrible things they did, in many cases reducing us to a tiny fraction of what we were before we met them. But fully accepting this, as horrible as it is – accepting that it can’t be changed now, and letting it go. Is very powerful because it’s again independent of the narcissist – you don’t need them to change or be sorry to internally accept what happened and let go inside yourself.
Is often hard to do at first, because it’s humbling and needs us to accept to harsh truths about what they did to us, and just how low they sent us in many cases. But it’s also liberating because you’re on longer in denial internally about what happened and what they did, and once you break through denial, you can move on and grow a lot quicker. Denial is often the thing that keeps us “stuck” to abusers mentally, stops us moving on and can even lead us to develop some nasty narcissistic traits ourselves if we let things fester inside us too long. Richard Grannon covered this in his excellent Trauma Bond work, which he’s sadly retired now.
“Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being ‘all right’ or ‘OK’ about a given situation, or of finding a place where one is able to forgive the other person…. for what has happened. This is not what we mean by the term acceptance here. Most people never reach a point of feeling all right about the losses and traumas they have experienced.
What this stage is about is accepting the reality of the situation and recognizing that this new reality is permanent.; in other words arriving at a point where we learn to live with it and living with it becomes the new norm. In resisting the new norm, people cling to the hope of maintaining life as it was before.
In time however, we come to see that we can’t maintain the past in the present. It has been changed and we must adjust. Hence we learn to accept new roles for ourselves and others.”
The Empathy Trap, p.53
The Empathy Trap by Jane and Tim McGregor contains some more good points on the issue of acceptance and letting go. See our books section for a link.
4. Detachment – Another term that I believe is important in overcoming Cluster B abuse, because it’s again independent of them, but also actually the best and most sublimated way of getting “revenge” on them, if this is what’s important to you. Detachment is when we no longer hold any strong emotions or internal dynamics regarding the narcissist, either positive or negative. They’re just another person that was in your life, but you don’t feel strongly about them either way. They’re just a “meh” sort of person, or when someone brings them up, it’s just a “meh” reaction – they’re now unimportant and uninteresting to you. Getting to this point is very hard, but the best way to annoy and torture the narcissist, who thrives on knowing you still care about them and are giving them your mental attention and energy (even negative attention). They feed off this, so reaching a place of detachment is best for your own growth, but also what will cause them the most pain – when they don’t matter to you anymore.
How healing and detachment from the narcissist tortures them
Beware Of Hoovering From The Narcissist (False Contrition)
A common way that narcissists will try and induce forgiveness in you is their “hoovering” act – where they come sniffing round again after a relationship has ended (sometimes soon after, sometimes months or years later), pretending to be contrite and sorry.
Bottom line – with the narcissist, this is all an act.
Here are some common ways this can manifest:
- They’ll contact you again out the blue on social media or by text, email or some other means. This is why no contact is important to stop them doing this.
- They’ll go back to the seemingly innocent, sweet, caring image if this is what they initially reeled you in with.
- They may issue seemingly heartfelt apologies about how sorry they are about how they hurt you.
- There will be promises that the cheating, gas-lighting, projection, lying etc. won’t happen again.
- If you had been trying to get them to go to therapy because of their toxic behavior, thy’ll promise to get help if you take them back.
- Any other changes in their behavior that you wanted them to make first time but they never did, they’ll latch onto these and promise to do them now, or claim they are “growing/changing/evolving/self aware” now when they haven’t changed at all.
- The general message and energy they’ll try to hoover you back in with is “I’ll be the person you always wanted me to be”. Or “this time I’ll do what you want, this time I’ll get it right”, “this time you can fix/change me” or “just one more chance, one more time”.
- If you do take them back, they’ll keep up these apparent changes for a while, then drop them and go straight back to the old, obnoxious abusive patterns.
- Bottom line – if you are one these people the narcissist recontacts and attempts to charm again, do not forgive them or given them another chance. They’re attention and supply addicts, and are not sincere in their intentions.
Hoovering From The Narcissist (One more chance please)
To many people, these “hoovering” approaches from a narcissist will feel off, despite the apparent warmth and charm, and strange “niceness”. It will just feel wrong and “icky”. It will feel like there’s an agenda there, because there is!
By trying to get you to “forgive” them and give them another chance, they’re trying to rekindle with an old source of supply. Remember, narcissists are supply addicts – their entire identity is built on narcissistic supply, and they’ll get it any way they can, including circling round back to old partners when their current supply has also deserted them.
When you understand this, it’s much easier to see through their nonsense act. Do not give the narcissist what they’re looking for. Drop them cold and move on.
The Very Limited Circumstances In Which A Narcissist May Deserve Forgiveness
In spite of all we’ve said so far, it is also true that as long as we accept the reality of free will and choice behind all human behavior, we also have to accept the possibility that even a full blown narcissist could change if they wanted to.
But peeling back all the layers of self deception and “rottenness” inside them would take years of prolonged, intensive work, and narcissists don’t do that.
However, here are some things a narcissist could go through that might effect real change to the point where they could be sincerely contrite and deserve forgiveness in the interpersonal sense:
- Undergoing many years (not weeks or months) of intensive psychotherapy to strip down all the layers of narcissism and rebuild themselves from the ground up (not going to happen though, once narcissists are in middle age).
- Going through an intensive 12 step recovery program for addiction (a thorough and prolonged effort, not just turning up to a few group meetings).
- Facing criminal charges and/or incarceration which exposes them and breaks down their narcissistic image for all the public to see.
- Any other environment where they are exposed or “found out” and cannot escape to new people.
- Any other huge life upheaval which forces them to confront their personality defects over a prolonged period of time (years), not just in a fleeting and superficial way.
But in reality, how many narcissists can we point to where this has actually happened? I can’t point to any myself. I would say that out of 10,000 full blown narcissists, you might get 1 out of that 10,000 that goes through the necessary steps to truly change and atone for their behavior to the point where they would “deserve” forgiveness, and perhaps even that’s a generous number.
For all the rest, it’s business as usual – lying, manipulative, exploitative and insincere, even when they’re pretending to be “sorry”. It’s not recommended to forgive when it’s not truly earned – drop them cold and move on.